Ovid, romcoms and the magic of being a teenager

credit: The Other Richard

Rhys Isaac-Jones and Nicola Coughlan in Jess and Joe Forever. Photography credit: The Other Richard


Jess and Joe Forever, a recent co-production between Farnham Maltings and Orange Tree Theatre, is currently on tour. When the company was in Richmond, Orange Tree Theatre’s Literary Associate Guy Jones talked with writer, Zoe Cooper, and director, Derek Bond, about romcoms, Ovid and the magic of being a teenager.

Guy Jones: Zoe, could you tell me a bit about why you wanted to tell this story?

Zoe Cooper: I was really interested in Ovid and magic and the power to transform. In Ovid women turn into birds, and trees; people shapeshift. At times he employs a mode of writing called free indirect speech, which he uses for female voices. Women and queer characters (although he wouldn’t have called them queer) don’t get a voice in work by his contemporaries. And then I was thinking about Norfolk, and that there would be something great about creating magic in landscape that was very flat, and grey, and isn’t cute or dramatic. And finally there was the magic of teenage-hood – the edge place, the last time you can really believe in magic.

Derek Bond: Also that’s when magic happens. Anyone who’s ever been a teenager knows that the transition from child to adult is seismic. Your body changes, your perspective, the loss of innocence. You become aware of your body in a way that’s about fitting in and social norms, and people feel a growing anxiety about how their bodies are different to other people’s bodies. A lot of times it’s horrible and upsetting, but it could be magical.

GJ: As well as being about moments of change and transition, it also feels to me like you’re exploring what it is to be on the fringes of things in so many ways – in terms of your class, or geography, or sexual identity.

ZC: One of the things I wanted to do was write absolutely in my own voice. I live in  Newcastle and I love writing for those theatres and those audiences. But with this play I wanted write a character that had my accent and was from my part of the world, which is Twickenham. Jess arrives in the play with a sense of her own superiority as a sophisticated London child but as she’s launched into this world in Norfolk she has to face up to the fact that she doesn’t know everything, and that in many ways she has had a very sheltered middle class upbringing. In a way Joe has a lot of authority – he knows how the countryside works. But in another way – because of his identity – he’s definitely on the fringes.

GJ: And for this play to have come to life and have a long run in London, followed by a regional tour – does that feel curiously appropriate for a play which explores the  relationship between the centre and edge?

ZC: We talked about the Orange Tree from the start. We felt that it would be great for this.

DB: And we also said wouldn’t it be great to take it to rural communities. I grew up in a tiny village in Worcestershire. The idea that there are venues now which thanks to organisations like house and Farnham Maltings, can get theatre like this, is really exciting. We can take the play to places which wouldn’t normally get new writing.

ZC: It’s not just about good quality work. It’s about work which honours the fact that rural communities are not necessarily conservative.

GJ: The mode of storytelling in the play is distinctive. Where did that come from?

ZC: Jess and Joe was commissioned by Old Vic New Voices originally, and they had quite a clear brief for it: they wanted it to be an hour long or a bit over, and they wanted it to be for a younger audience. It coincided with what I wanted to do next. I’d started to employ direct address in my plays because I was a bit bored with the fourth wall and this felt like a play where the characters absolutely had to tell their story themselves.

DB: I’ve also become a bit bored of the fourth wall. I’m doing three shows this year, and they’re all in the round. I’ve found myself finding ways to break the fourth wall in all of them.

GJ: What is that a response to?

ZC: I wanted to write plays that acknowledged the audience. Because I don’t live in London, and a lot of my friends don’t work in theatre – or necessarily go to the theatre as much – I am always particularly interested to hear what they think of the plays we see together. One of the things they always seem to comment on is how strange and old fashioned it seems to perform whole plays without ever allowing the characters to acknowledge that they are being watched. I was also really encouraged by the work of other writers that have broken the fourth wall, like Caroline Horton, Charlotte Josephine and Lucy Kirkwood.

GJ: What were the challenges of this kind of writing?

ZC: Trying to create drama. With the direct address you have to make sure they don’t just say all their feelings. How do you create unreliable narrators in a way that’s interesting? I’ve wanted to write queer characters for a really long time, but the plays that I’ve seen are issue-driven plays – you have the monologue where a character says ‘I feel so alone, I just want to come out, transition’. I hate that, but with direct address you can very easily back yourself into that corner.

DB: What I love about a play where there’s direct address is that it makes the audience a character. They’re an actual part of the experience, a participant in what’s going on, not just a spectator. It makes me think of Daniel Kitson, who went from a world of stand up where you’re directly addressing an audience, to the work he’s been doing recently where he blurs the line between standup and theatre. There’s something really very pure about someone standing on a stage and telling you a story.

GJ: You mentioned romcoms. How much are each of you aware of genre when you work?

ZC: There’s something familiar about genre: the coming of age genre. Poets have it easy because they have, say, a sonnet, and that’s the shape of the poem. They can pour everything into it but there are limits. Young writers really need those limits. But in theatre we’re not always great at putting limits on things because we don’t do genre. Lots of writers have got rid of the three-act structure, but it’s really useful to have that shape.

DB: It’s useful to identify the form of the story: it’s a mystery. There is something that these characters are not telling us, and as the play goes on we get closer and closer to finding out what that might be. So it’s a murder mystery, but with something in the will-they-won’t they of a romcom.

ZC: I had felt that I wanted to be taken seriously and so I shouldn’t write jokes. But I like romcoms more than I like any other kind of film. There was a chasm between that and the kind of things that I was writing. So I was creating work, not that I wouldn’t choose to go and see, but that wouldn’t necessarily make me go ‘Oh brilliant’.

DB: I think there’s a similar thing with directors. Up until a few years ago I was doing a lot of new plays in which dead children featured largely – abuse, grief. And then when I started to do some comedy, I found that I really enjoyed it. I realised that was okay. It didn’t make you less of a director if you didn’t reduce everyone to tears.


See Jess and Joe Forever at Farnham Maltings on Thursday 3 November. Read the 4* review (The Stage).Originally commissioned by Old Vic New Voices.

new play launched at the maltings

Launch Party, a co-production by Launch Party and Bucket Club

Launch Party, a co-production by Bucket Club and Farnham Maltings. Photography credit: Bucket Club

Bucket Club, emerging theatre company and the inaugural recipients of the Farnham Maltings Fellowship Award, are currently working on their newest show: Launch Party. We’ve loved having the Buckets in the building over recent weeks, so had a chat to writer, director and founder-member Nel Crouch in advance of next week’s.


It’s clear that you all love making theatre and performing together; but how did Bucket Club come to be a theatre company?

Bucket Club met at Bristol University where we all worked together on theatre and comedy, but never as a company. After graduating we all knew we wanted to make theatre, but weren’t sure where to start. We applied for an emerging artist’s residency at the Lyric Hammersmith, where we were able to start work on our first show, Lorraine & Alan.

It was through making that first show that we met Farnham Maltings, when pitching for their No Strings Attached fund for early career theatre makers. Amazingly, they made us an associate company and have steered us through making our other two shows – Fossils, which was at the Edinburgh Fringe in August, and now Launch Party.

Alongside Bucket Club, we all work with other companies and theatres as individual artists – I’ve just finished up a BBC Performing Arts Fund fellowship at Tobacco Factory Theatres in Bristol, and certainly wouldn’t have had that opportunity without the work I’ve made with the company. But it’s always my favourite thing to come back and make stuff with the Buckets.

What style of theatre would you say Bucket Club specialises in?

Bucket Club’s work is all about storytelling. We use a lot of narration, which allows us to talk directly to our audiences and play with different ways of telling a story. It lets us use a lot of comedy but also to create really beautiful images and have moments of poetry.

Music is also really important to how we work. Our composer, David Ridley, who also performs in our shows writes beautiful original songs and uses innovative technology to build up soundscapes and music that respond to and support our stories. Expect a lot of singing in Launch Party!

Why did you decide to base your new show, Launch Party, all around space exploration?

When we were coming up with ideas, our friend Emily taught us about the 1970s Voyager 1 craft. Launched by NASA, it’s a spacecraft traveling indefinitely through interstellar space – it left the solar system a few years ago. When it was being made, the scientists working on it realised that, if it was going to go through space for potentially billions of years, there was a chance it might be found by alien life. They decided to tell those aliens something about Earth.

A gold-plated record was attached to the craft, containing sounds from earth including greetings, whale song and music – from ancient tribal singing to Chuck Berry. On the record was written “to the makers of music – all worlds, all times”. We thought this was a lovely leap of imagination, and an interesting idea to explore as a company that works with music. Once we were thinking about space, it started popping up everywhere – at the time there was a lot in the news about the proposed Mars One mission. With all this in mind, we started cooking up a story.

After performing at the Maltings, Launch Party’s touring to rural venues. Why were you interested in making a show for rural touring?

We’ve never made work for rural touring before! It’s great to be working with Farnham Maltings who have so much expertise in this area, as booking and organising a tour is a huge puzzle. Whenever we’ve told people about Launch Party they’ve said how rural touring audiences are always their favourite, so we’re really looking forward to it. We’re also excited to visit some really beautiful parts of the country, and getting to know lots of different communities.


Launch Party opens in the Tindle Studio on Thursday 13 October, before touring to rural venues in the UK throughout October & November.

Take On Me makes a big splash in Surrey leisure centres

Dante or Die in Take On Me

Dante or Die in Take On Me. Photography credit: Justin Jones

Take On Me has been created by Dante or Die, a company who make theatre in unusual spaces, working with writer Andrew Muir. The piece came about through a commission by Arts Partnership Surrey and Farnham Maltings, called ‘not for the likes of me’, to enable a performance for people who might not normally go to the theatre. We caught up with co-creator and Take On Me lifeguard, Terry O’Donovan to find out more.


What originally drew you to the idea of working with local authorities across Surrey?

We had been dreaming of a show in sports & leisure centres since visiting one that was about to be demolished. We were excited about the very fact that these buildings are places where everyone ends up at some point in their life – from children learning to swim, to gym buffs, to older people in rehabilitation. When Arts Partnership Surrey put their call out for ‘not for the likes of me’ commission we immediately recognised that their ambitions for the project fit perfectly with our ideas to create a theatre project that would allow people to bump into a show – or the creation of a show – somewhere unexpected.

So, what’s the play about?

At the heart of the play it’s about self-esteem, body image and how that connects to our psyche; as well as human connection. The story itself is modelled on 80s film plots – with lots of references to movies like The Karate Kid, Dirty Dancing and Top Gun – the underdog going on an inner journey to success! We follow a lifeguard who has never saved anyone and a woman in her 50s who is grieving. Their stories intertwine over the 70 minutes via encounters in the changing rooms, the gym, a Jane Fonda-inspired aerobics class and the pool.

Your productions tend to treat the audience as a fly-on-the-wall, so what should people coming to see the show expect?

You get up close-and-personal to the actors in our shows – it’s always exciting to us to create very intimate situations so that you feel like you’re literally in the world of the characters. But as you said, you’re a fly-on-the-wall, so you’re safe in the knowledge that you can be right next to the actor at a very personal moment but you’re a voyeur. Which is a lot of fun!

For this show we have two incredibly talented musicians who lead you on the journey from one space to another – you’re in safe hands with them. We’ve re-interpreted some classic pop hits like Flashdance, Faith and of course Take On Me so as you’re wandering the corridors of the leisure centre you’ll hopefully hear the lyrics and the emotional drive behind these songs in new ways.

You’re not only performing in leisure centres, but also did most of the writing, creating and rehearsing in them; I imagine that’s been great fun, but not without its challenges. How have you found working in such an unconventional space?

It has been a huge challenge. We’ve made shows in working hotels and self-storage buildings before but most of the time that’s meant we’re in spaces to ourselves. Rehearsing this show has meant trying to create it around people working out and having showers. The trickiest things have been trying to create the scenes in changing rooms – the director, Daphna, is female, and one of the musicians in the male changing room scene is a woman. So it was like guerilla theatre-making. I’d jump in, check there were no men and say GO! We’d rehearse for 5 minutes and then a guy would come in and need to get changed so we’d have to leave. Although some guys didn’t mind – we did a whole scene with The Karate Kid popping up and Ellie singing and playing her keytar as an older gent had his shower and got dressed around us. It was brilliant.

Alongside the professional actors, musicians and directors, you’ve also got community cast from Surrey. How did you get different groups involved and how does the piece benefit from having them involved?

Our participation cast are amazing. We ran workshops at all of the partner leisure centres inviting people to learn about the show and the different ways to be involved – a core participation cast rehearsed with us and perform at every venue. We also have different people from each centre in the aerobics scene every week and members of a choir that change weekly as well. We worked with Farnham Maltings’ associate producer Christine Lee to get word out to as many people as possible, popped into Legs, Bums and Tums groups – I ended up doing a Clubercise class in de Stafford Sports Centre (Caterham) having chatted to the ladies about the show.

The show has always been inspired the community aspect of leisure centres – unexpected friendships growing. When we finished our first performance and almost 30 people took a bow together – a choir, some aerobics members we’d only met the day before, and the cast of people who had invested in our crazy idea it really did feel like a celebration of taking a leap into the unknown. It’s what the show is all about.


You can catch Take On Me at Farnham Leisure Centre on Saturday 8 October, and on tour in Surrey throughout October. Read the 4* review (The Stage).